I don’t believe the sell-off of our forestry is fundamentally bad

WARM but wet weather as we speed towards the end of February. It’s March next week and officially spring; down hill all the way as we approach the best season of the year, full of hope and promise.

The buds are everywhere, and greenery along the roadsides, as well as brilliant yellow from the forsythia in the garden, catkins on the hazel, early potatoes, radish, broccoli and parsnips have joined the broad beans in the soil, as the rhubarb explodes out of its pot in a blaze of pink and green. It just makes you feel good to be alive.

n The NFU Conference was a great success. Record numbers of delegates both attending the two days and sitting down for the dinner; but what did we learn?

Following Peter Kendall’s (NFU President) opening address, which was full of praise for the work put in train by the coalition government on the one hand, but pretty blunt and to the point about the shortcomings of the government on the other; the lack of strategy, where is the food plan, where is the white paper dealing with the challenges of the Foresight report?

Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State needed a very good performance to counter the growing unease following her performance at the Oxford Conference and the Organic Conference recently. It wasn’t to be, and I can’t help feeling that she is unable to say or do much, but the time has come where she needs to stand up for herself, she has little to lose now, as David Cameron displayed dissatisfaction at the way the forestry sell-off had been handled the same day.

The Secretary of State was better under questioning, which were many and varied, but she lacks confidence and did not look at ease for one minute.

‘The plight of dairy does keep me awake at night’ was the response to many questions on dairy farming ‘And we will assist in getting you better returns on your raw material’.

The Secretary of State would not, however, be drawn into any statement of how exactly the government would help.

The Ombudsman or more accurately the Adjudicator is apparently being pushed through during this parliamentary session which will be very good news, but both Caroline Spelman and Jim Paice (Minister for Farming) were not keen on the European work on milk contracts and agreements, which would strengthen the dairy farmer’s hand, should they chose to implement it in the UK.

She was asked about bovine TB of course and also the Common Agriculture Policy, and the forestry sell-off. On the later point the Secretary of State claimed that ‘It is very hard to be heard when certain myths have gained traction’.

n Since then, Caroline Spelman has appeared in the House of Commons to apologise over the proposed sell-off of the forestry, stating ‘We got this one wrong’.

Did they? It was certainly badly planned and rushed by her department DEFRA, and a six month pause for reflection is a relief, but was the idea fundamentally wrong? I do not believe it is.

There is no doubt now that people care about our trees, but does that mean that the real issues are understood, and the Forestry Commission’s performance known?

I can tell you, that growing up in Snowdonia, North Wales, watching as the Forestry Commission planted thousands of acres of upland, destroying the deciduous woodland in their quest to plant the landscape in a mono-culture of evergreens, where bio-diversity and wildlife suffered as a direct result of their actions, was not a pleasant experience.

Many conservationist agree with me, they feel frustrated at the slow progress in removing 74,000 acres of alien conifers it once planted in England’s heaths and bogs; some of the best wildlife habitats.

Since 2002, the Commission has restored fewer than 5,000 acres of the 57,000 it planted with conifers in the earlier era.

What should actually matter to all of us is how ‘our’ forests are being managed, and could it be done better by private companies?

What do we expect from our forests? Recreation, a carbon sink, wildlife? The RSPB of all people came to the government’s assistance on this one, claiming that the bits for sale had no wildlife or bio-diversity value!

One has to question the competence of a nationalised industry which has been found wanting on many fronts, whether it be the rate of planting, the reversal of the ecologically destructive decisions it made in the past and showing no real leadership in how a better future can be implemented.

Jonathon Porritt was heavily involved in the campaign to resist the government’s sell off, he has of course some history, in that The Co-operative is a massive business these days with its agricultural, retail, banking and funeral business.

Jonathon Porritt got a little carried away with his speech I thought, when he announced the end of capitalism!

He is a popular fellow with many, and he went on to denounce banks, governments, big business and so on.

n The Co-op Chief Executive Peter Marks was also in revolutionary mood (the event was called ‘Join the Revolution’), and I wait to see how much of his rhetoric about fair trade, looking after primary producers, farmers and suppliers, will apply here in the UK.

I am eager to see him following this event, to chat about fair trade for dairy farmers in the UK, and the lack of a proper dedicated supply with the Co-op. It is a year ago he promised Peter Kendall and myself that he would do something meaningful for British dairy farmers, and things will need to change substantially, following the very hard attitude and constant re-tendering for milk contracts.

As Jay Rayner stated in our ‘Question Time’ session at the NFU Conference last week, supermarkets have failed to rise to the challenge of corporate social responsibility, and have not looked after the investment needed in agriculture.

It has been a good week, crowned by Patrick Holden of the Soil Association’s comments (in the same session) that he was sorry if the comments made over the last 20 years had been upsetting!

The organic movement has made mistakes he said, we have been trying to establish a market and became too polarized; we have moved too far as organic farmers. Patrick Holden also stated that on bTB, not only do we need to tackle the disease in wildlife, but with public consultation we need badger management.

It’s the right thing to do.